• Katerina Irwin

American Marijuana Propaganda in the 20th and 21st century

#COM416 collaboration with Meaghan Harvey

The use of marijuana has been a truly controversial debate that has been existing in the United States since marijuana first made it to our country up to present day. It seems though, that the opinion of marijuana use has significantly changed over the years. The drug went from having a completely negative connotation, to one that was euphoric and magical, to being closely aligned with medical treatment. No matter a person's stance on marijuana, it’s safe to say they obtained their opinions through the same channel of propaganda. As Leonard Doob (1909–2000) has suggested, “propaganda is the attempt to affect the personalities and to control the behavior of individuals”. Through propaganda, an opinion is given to the masses, the masses either agree or disagree with the message, either way the fire is being fueled. To really understand how propaganda has been used in the controversy of marijuana use, we will be speaking on two pieces of marijuana related propaganda. First, we will discuss the anti-marijuana propaganda film “Reefer Madness” and how it lit a fire under the anti-marijuana movement during the 20th century in the US. Then, we will discuss a recent anti-marijuana campaign called above the influence, focused on keeping adolescents away from substance abuse.

Dope fiends, harrolts, criminals, violence, and even murder are some of the words to associated with marijuana use back in the 1930’s. How did these words have such close connotation with marijuana use? You guessed it; propaganda. Since as long as marijuana was present in the United states, there has always been a negative conclusion to the drug. However, it wasn’t until the 1930’s when the ani-reefer hysteria took full force when pushed by “belligerent Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner J. Anslinger’s one-man "call to arms" campaign against the drug.” Born from Anslinger's campaign were a series of anti-marijuana short films originally titled “Tell Your Children” but is now famously known as “Reefer Madness”.

Reefer Madness made its debut in 1936 and ran 1 hour and 6 minutes of short stories showing the extreme and exaggerated dangers of marijuana use from crashing your car, to rape, and suicide. This piece of propaganda is so significant because it really is the forefront to the negative opinions of marijuana. Through this film, people became less and less likely to “weigh and form independent opinion”. The task of Reefer Madness was to attract the lost followers and develop a collective attitude towards the use of marijuana through paranoia and hysteria.

Reefer Madness is filmed in black in white due to the time period it was made in. Although there wasn’t an option for color, I feel that the black and white gave the film a hint of realism to the story. On the other hand, there was no pops of color to grasp the attention of the audience, so this could take away from the attention span of the audience. What must have grasped the audience's attention was the sound. The music goes from upbeat to mysterious, to intense. It features loud screams, bangs, and crashes in every short story. Even the happy moments in the film such fun and laughter sounded hysterical. The sounds of Reefer Madness is enough to cause nightmares. I believe this was done so people will connect marijuana use to these intense, emotional sounds.

An example of one of the short stories in the Reefer Madness film features four teens, two boys and two girls. They were parked, having a seemingly grand time. However the more times i watched the story, I noticed how intense and hysterical the females laughs were. This made me believe that the the makers of the film wanted to keep the fear in its audience the whole time, even in the seemingly happy parts. Moving on with the story, the four teens are passing around the joint, and the females are hanging off of the males arms, kissing them, and being portrayed as “hussies”, which was the exact intent. After smoking the joint, the driver drives off. The touching between the teens become more intense, the laughs become even more emotional, then the next thing you know, CRASH. This story uses somewhat of a slippery slope argument, basically saying if you smoke marijuana, you will turn into sex fiends and crash a car. This instills fear and paranoia in anyone who watches this piece of propaganda.

From what I’ve gathered, I would note the audience the campaign was aimed to reach were parents and adolescents. The original title of the propaganda piece was titled “Tell Your Children”. The title alone would grasp the attention of parents particularly in caucasian middle class families. In the 1930’s, there was a negative portrayal of the african american and mexican race, leaving marijuana and its negativity to fall under the culture of miniories. The second target audience for the anti-marijuana campaign were adolescence. Adolescence are particularly impressionable, so fear and hysteria is an effective tactic to form their opinions and ideas on marijuana. I would say Reefer Madness reached its goal through its target audience, as the extreme ideas of murder, suicide, and rape were successfully connotated to marijuana.

Besides the complete panicked frenzy from Reefer Madness, in 1937, just a year after the film was released, the “Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed possessing or selling pot” was passed. Making a more lasting impression, propaganda induced posters, flyers, and even graphics have been developed from the original propaganda piece of Reefer Madness. These still images are just as provoking due to the red, green and yellow colors, extreme, potent verbiage, and hypnotic appeal. I personally would even say they are aesthetically pleasing, in a trippy scheme. The message behind the propaganda didn’t age well, though. The 60’s rolled around as did many marijuana cigarettes. I was becoming more and more known that marijuana doesn’t make people insane, and the worst of the worst is not bound to happen. The difference between this found information of the truth behind marijuana and the anti-marijuana campaign? The campaign gained opinion through untrue, extreme propaganda and the truth behind marijuana use was being obtained through actual experience.

The view of marijuana on American society have always been negative. A change in society has slowly led to the acceptance of the use of marijuana. The view of marijuana has only recently changed as they started to legalize for recreational use in 2012. While this was not the beginning of recreational use for marijuana as many already partook in this activity. The original views that society held for those who dabbled in use of this illegal drug were seen as lazy, unproductive members of society as well associated to a potential of future criminal activity. It wasn’t until 1996 when proposition 215 pushed for the legalization of marijuana in medical use. The drug was known for its mind altering effects, however research was started to view the effects it had as a therapeutic drug to treat illnesses and side effects.

The use of Marijuana was found to have many benefits in treatment for medical purposes. The national institute for drug abuse (NIDA) indicated that marijuana can be used to treat symptoms such as reducing nausea and increasing appetite which can be extremely useful for those who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment. “THC may also decrease pain, inflammation (swelling and redness), and muscle control problems. Unlike THC, CBD is a cannabinoid that doesn't make people "high." These drugs aren't popular for recreational use because they aren't intoxicating. It may be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures, and possibly even treating mental illness and addictions” (NIDA, 2018). Society started to see that the impact of marijuana as medical purposes outweigh the negative side effect of usage which pushed for a change in legislation.

In california 1990’s marijuana non profit activist group called Californians for compassionate use started a campaign using the people to gather support to legalize marijuana for medical use. They group gathered enough support to gain a ballot in November 2016. District Attorney Hallinan supported this proposition because he famously said he was tired of sending cancer patients to jail because of their marijuana use. The proposed law states that “To ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person's health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief” (Compassionate Use Act, 1996).

The believe that marijuana was harmful has been around for decades however research was done which showed that marijuana could be used in ways that treated illnesses and symptoms which outweighed the side effects. According to NIDA legalization of marijuana for treatment of illnesses and side effects could help the opioid crisis in America by decreasing the amount of opioid prescriptions given to marijuana prescriptions.

Since society began to change their views of usage of marijuana the push to legalize it for recreational use began. Legalizing marijuana is seen to have a positive impact on American society in multiple ways.The first is that it would add money into the economy. Government regulated dispensaries could apply a tax to the sales of marijuana. The other benefit would be the growth dispensaries creating a need to workers and creating more jobs within America. A third benefit includes making marijuana safer because the drug would be regulated. Marijuana regulated through labs would ensure that the drug would not be laced with other harmful and potentially life threatening chemicals or drugs. A final benefit would lower street crime and free up task force allowing police resources to focus their time on more important and life threatening situations.

Every year the national drug intelligence center creates a report on the effects of drugs in american society. From 2003-2010 the Nation Drug assessment of marijuana viewed marijuana as the most dangerous drug in America because of how readily available it is. The NIDA has reported the nationwide trend of marijuana use in the U.S. This report indicated that “Marijuana use has increased since 2007. In 2013, there were 19.8 million current users—about 7.5 percent of people aged 12 or older—up from 14.5 million (5.8 percent) in 2007” (NIDA, 2015). They also report that those who begin using marijuana as teens are more likely to move onto other harmful drugs in the future, which is another reason as to why marijuana is labeled as the most harmful drug at the time. There has been as steady agreement that marijuana should be illegal and legislature has made sure of that from the 1900-1996. From 1996 to present support for legalization has been back and forth, from the beginning of the California compassionate act of 1996 and since then states have slowly began to legalize the use of medical marijuana, however in 2005 the Supreme court enacted a ban on medical marijuana and allowed it to be prosecuted even if states allowed it ( Moore, 2013). At the time only 11 states had legalized the use of medical marijuana. In 2011 there was a Federal investigation to shut down dispensaries and growers that were thought to be used as large scale drug operations (Moore, 2013). Federal Government was becoming more strict with their regulation on marijuana as society's view towards it changed to be less negative. In 2012 Colorado and Washington permitted the legal use of marijuana as recreational use. It has taken almost one hundred years to change the views of American society, and slowly states are legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The next state to legalize was California, now there are currently ten states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

The shift in views against marijuana has changed slowly in America however there are still strong opposing views against the recreational and medical use of the drug. There have been many drug free campaigns since 2000 however the most recent campaign is the above the influence. Above the influence campaign was created in 2014 and was created in partnership National Youth Anti- Drug Media Campaign. The campaign not only focuses on teen pressure for marijuana use but other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, pills, meth, steroids and more. The campaign is known for their TV advertisements of scenarios of peer pressure and drugs. There are memorable ones that are seen as propaganda such as the ones where 2-D figure of a man smoking marijuana lounges around being portrayed as lazy and a dog which adds judgement and is seen giving the message to walk away from friends and stay “above the influence”. Their other TV advertisements dramatize the effects of marijuana as being an unproductive member of society and that teens should choose to say no to those influence, it shows the message that marijuana is only negative. The mission of the campaign include “Our goal is to help teens stand up to negative pressures, or influences. The more aware you are, of the influences around you, the better prepared you will be to face them, including the pressure to use drugs and alcohol. We’re not telling you how to live your life, but we are giving you another perspective and the latest facts. You need to make your own smart decisions (Above the Influence, 2014).

Looking at the propaganda that the campaign has created the purpose is to keep adolescent to choose not to partake in any drug use. The tone that they use tries to portray the serious side effects that the drug has and how it affect a teens lifestyle. They use a comical dramatization of marijuana use. The method that they used create the propaganda not only makes it ineffective but how society viewed the usage of marijuana at the time add to it as well. Governments held its control over regulation of marijuana while citizens pushed for the legalization because of its health benefits as well economical benefits for recreational use. The purpose of the propaganda is to have marijuana be portrayed a certain way so only certain information will be given on the campaign site that is meant to be educational.

After comparing our pieces of anti-marijuana propaganda, we feel that the “Reefer Madness” piece was more influential than the present day anti-marijuana pieces. The tactic used in “Reefer Madness” was to instill fear and hysteria to its very influential audiences of parents and adolescents. In the Above the Influence propaganda pieces, they try to use peer pressure and isolation, but it turns the message comical. Technology also plays a role in determining which piece was more influential. “When Reefer Madness” made its debut, the internet wasn’t a thing. This propaganda piece spread wholly through fear and word of mouth and created a huge hysteria marijuana movement. Even with today’s technology, present day anti-marijuana pieces don’t get the right traction as the medical truth of the drug comes to light.


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Moore, L. (2013, October 26). Milestones in U.S. Marijuana Laws. Retrieved from

National Drug Threat Assessment. (2003-2010). Retrieved from

NIDA. (2018, June 27). Marijuana as Medicine. Retrieved from on 2019, March


NIDA. (2015, June 25). Nationwide Trends. Retrieved from on 2019, March 29

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